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This week, I, like every other responsible, upstanding, well-adjusted adult, have been obsessed with catching Pokemon in the new Pokemon Go mobile augmented reality game. I was never even into Pokemon before, but this was a free app so I got curious and tried it and now I’m hooked. This is exactly what I was told would happen to me in all those DARE classes I had to take in 5th grade, but instead of heroin it’s tiny fictional monsters.
But like heroin, our international Pokemon Go addiction has led to an all-out crime wave being reported on in the media. It all started when a police department in Missouri posted a warning on their Facebook page, saying they had apprehended four men armed with a handgun who had been robbing Pokemon Go players. The cops said the men had dropped a lure at a pokestop–if you’re not familiar with the game because you’re old or super uncool, let me explain. In Pokemon Go you need to go out into the real world to capture Pokemon, which pop up on your phone when you get physically close to their location. You can attract Pokemon to you in various ways, and one of which is to drop a lure at a Pokestop, which is a place you can go to pick up free items for the game. It could be a park monument, or a church, or some local monument. When you drop a lure there, other players can also take advantage of it to catch more Pokemon.
So the cops said these guys were using the lure to attract not just Pokemon but more Pokemon Go players, who would show up holding their phones out in front of their faces and not paying much attention to non-Pokemon activities happening around them. Then the guys would relieve the victims of their phones.
There have been several other reports across the country of similar events, including one here in San Francisco last weekend in which two kids were robbed while playing the game. It’s a Poke-crime wave! Or is it?
One of the Missouri victims apparently contacted Snopes, the myth-busting website, to say that while he WAS playing the game when he was robbed, the robbers didn’t actually use a lure to do it. He says he was just walking down a dark street to an out-of-the-way Pokestop when the guys pulled up in their car, robbed him, and took off.
And the kids who were robbed here in San Francisco may have been playing the game, too, but they were just two of eight total cell phone robberies that happened in the city last weekend. Like any new fad, Pokemon Go is going to get blamed for everything even when it’s only tangentially related to what happened. Just wait for the first kidnapper who is caught with Pokemon Go installed on his phone. It won’t be pretty.
Pokemon Go can definitely contribute to making it easier for someone to rob you, since you currently have to keep the stupid game open at all times for it to work, and because if you’re actively tracking a Pokemon, you need to watch your screen to see if you’re getting closer or further away from it. And the servers are constantly going down so you can’t put your phone in your pocket because the app may close. All that adds up to you being unaware of what’s happening around you while holding a $500 computer out in front of you.
So I do hope Pokemon Go fixes the servers and the other things that make people more likely to have to stare intently at the screen while playing. In the meanwhile, keep your head about you while playing but also remember that you’re much more likely to get all the benefits of the game and none of the drawbacks: more exercise, meeting other people who are enjoying the game as well, and of course, capturing gyms for the one true team, Team Mystic.